The Corner

Re: Torture, Tactics, and Strategy

Jim — I’ve been travelling all day and I’m just seeing your post now. I’m afraid I have some problems with it, or at least I’m in need of some clarification (I also basically agree with Rich below, who just beat me to the posting, so I’ve trimmed some points he makes more concisely than I did).

And, please, let’s take all of the following as arguendo as well.

You write:

I have been reading the very serious ongoing debate here at The Corner about the correct position on torture, if we assume that it works, with great interest. My only contribution is that I don’t think this debate has defined “works” properly.

Fair enough.

I would put it to you that if there is a burden of proof for defenders of these practices to define “what works” there is also a burden on those complaining of torture to define torture. Otherwise, “torture” becomes an abracadabra word that magically renders any method unacceptable or close to it. Many of the methods, though not all, that have been alleged fall far short of torture in my book. 

Moving on, on the non-strategic level, I think the letter from Blair, the additional testimony from Hayden and Mukasey, as well as other reports should suffice that something very useful — i.e. actionable –   resulted from these methods.

Was it worth the price to use these methods? That’s a good strategic question, as you note.

But then you lose me. You write:

It seems to me that the real question is whether torture works strategically; that is, is the U.S. better able to achieve these objectives by conducting systematic torture as a matter of policy, or by refusing to do this? Given that human society is complex, it’s not clear that tactical efficacy implies strategic efficacy.

When you ask the question this way, one obvious point stands out: we keep beating the torturing nations. The regimes in the modern world that have used systematic torture and directly threatened the survival of the United States — Nazi Germany, WWII-era Japan, and the Soviet Union — have been annihilated, while we are the world’s leading nation. The list of other torturing nations governed by regimes that would like to do us serious harm, but lack the capacity for this kind of challenge because they are economically underdeveloped (an interesting observation in itself), are not places that most people reading this blog would ever want to live as a typical resident. They have won no competition worth winning. The classically liberal nations of Western Europe, North America, and the Pacific that led the move away from systematic government-sponsored torture are the world’s winners.

First, I think your honest concession that correlation is not causality negates a great deal, though not all, of your point.

Even so,  why does the question have to boil down to a yes or no question? Couldn’t a third option be that this merely proves such methods should be kept secret, not that they shouldn’t be used? (Again, we are excluding the issue of morality for the moment and assuming some lawful supervision.)

I keep hearing that all of these other countries don’t “torture.” I’m sure that’s true of some, but I’m not so sure about others. Perhaps some of these countries are just a lot better at keeping these things under wraps?

Similarly, I don’t know that what America did from 2002 to 2006 is the sharp break with the past that you assume it to be (you call it an “overturning [of] what has been an important element of American identity for so many years and through so many conflicts.”). Would the boys from the OSS really be stunned by what we did to KSM? Did the CIA really take a much higher road throughout the Cold War, including in Vietnam? Or were we just a lot better at keeping our dirty laundry out of the public eye? Perhaps the press was less eager to expose American national-security secrets? I’m not a great student of this subject, but I would be stunned to discover that the CIA never beat anyone up until 2002.

I truly don’t know the answer to these questions. But I don’t get the sense that a lot of folks demanding prosecutions of Bush officials know the answers either.

Last, there’s an assumption deep in your post that one finds all over the place: that the actions of a few ruthless individuals in defense of their country corrupt the entire society.

I don’t know that that is true, either. It is surely more likely to be true when truly damning facts are made public and people can’t claim they didn’t know what was being done on their behalf. But again, I would be eager to hear about the hard evidence on this point.

For instance, let’s take it as a given that some horrible things were done by Union soldiers in the Civil War. What, exactly, does that say about the Northern states and their cause?

Again, I am not advocating torture or even harsh interrogation methods in this post. I just think that the “what works” crowd isn’t the only group with a burden of proof that needs to be met if we’re going to have a fruitful debate.

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